It’s a whole new mindset for the UCLA baseball team in 2011.
Thus far, however, it’s been familiar results.
The Bruins, ranked in the top two in the country in every important preseason poll, are now the hunted. The targeted. The team that everybody else circles on their calendars.
The newfound pressure hasn’t meant much yet, though. The Bruins (4-0) have had a relatively easy go of it in starting the year off undefeated, a mark they’ll put to the test this weekend when they host San Jose State (4-0).
Motivation won’t be an issue for UCLA, which ““ despite being celebrated as an elite team ““ remembers a minor detail about last season: The championship trophy didn’t land in Westwood.
“Everybody has expectations within our program now,” coach John Savage said. “They know what we did last year. But we came up short, and everybody knows it. At the end of the day, I think we got a hungry team.”
It remains to be seen whether or not that hunger translates into a repeat performance of last season, when the Bruins started off the campaign by reeling off 22 consecutive wins and serving notice to the country that they were a team to be reckoned with.
So far, 2011 has been business as usual for UCLA, led by a dominant pitching staff that has yet to give up an earned run through four games.
Headlined by All-American juniors Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, the rotation also got strong debut performances from its younger players.
Four Bruins ““ Zach Weiss, Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Ryan Deeter ““ threw their first pitch as collegians during the initial four-game stretch, and will be counted on to be key cogs in the pitching staff going forward.
“You have the Coles and Bauers, but on the back end we’re going to need everybody to be a contributor,” Savage said.
Savage continues to tinker with a lineup that put up just eight runs through three games against USF before breaking out with nine against Pepperdine on Tuesday. Sophomore Beau Amaral is battling a shoulder injury and has yet to roam the outfield, but is expected to do so against the Spartans.
With a formidable slate of Pac-10 games on the horizon ““ the conference is one of the strongest in the country ““ UCLA knows it has to steadily work out its kinks in the early-season series.
“We’re just trying to get where we need to be and be prepared to play the teams that we’re going to play,” senior outfielder Chris Giovinazzo said. “But I think right now we’re just trying to get better every day.”
That philosophy becomes particularly important as the Bruins continue to integrate their younger players into the lineup.
Freshman shortstop Pat Valaika finally had his welcome-to-college moment Tuesday against the Waves when he went two-for-three with 3 RBIs. Valaika said he’s feeling comfortable as the Bruins’ starting shortstop despite only having four games of experience under his belt.
“After the first ground ball I got, I got in a groove and felt a lot more relaxed,” Valaika said.
_With reports from Sam Strong, Bruin Sports senior staff. _